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La Vida Eterna?
Can one actually be “Forever Young”?
The question was debated and analyzed at a recent conference in Center City, where the Forever Young Health and Wellness Expo — whose proceeds benefitted the Klein JCC services for vulnerable seniors throughout Philadelphia — brought together representatives from companies and organizations ranging from the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, Canyon Ranch, Whole Foods, Quititnow (a smoking cessation program using hypnosis), and Leisure Fitness, which offered visitors the opportunity to test a new machine, the “Elliptigo”—part bike, part elliptical trainer — intended for outdoor use.
Among the best-known speakers sharing their expertise were Penn Medicine’s Dr. Michael Baime, whose presentation, “Mindfulness for Life: More Than Just Stress Management,” opened the program; and the featured speaker, Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, Healthy Aging, and many more books on lifestyle and health.
Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, which he founded in 1992, and of Mind/Body Programs, Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out in his presentation that stress is a biological, protective response, a “fight or flight” reaction that has its roots in prehistoric times.
Unfortunately, the reaction meant to marshal our energies to save us from wild animals serves us less well when facing more contemporary stress agents such as deadlines, traffic jams and family demands.
He presented the human consequences: a study of medical students showed that those exhibiting lower hostility toward their circumstances lived longer than those whose responses to stress showed greater hostility.
Once a person focuses energy on the cause of stress, nothing else exists, and the fight or flight response becomes sustained. It eventually causes vulnerability to the so-called diseases of aging.
But intervention is possible, said Baime, through mindfulness, a term he explained by citing writer Jon Kabot-Zinn’s definition: “Paying attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”
While he acknowledged that mindfulness “takes practice,” Baime touted such benefits as a change in brain structure allowing for “increased cognitive performance” and the “ability to handle emotional upheavals.”
Eventually meditation allows a person to focus not on the cause of stress but on the beauty in a life, “on what matters.” This in turn allows one to find a path through life by “connecting to an inner compass.”
Baime concluded his lecture by leading the audience in a mindfulness exercise, asking members to focus on simple physical sensations, turning one’s attention back gently if it wandered.
Although he described his mindfulness program as “secular,” Baime cited the importance of the spiritual in everyday life. As he noted, there is a progression in learning mindfulness. We may first not notice the sky, then perhaps pay cursory attention, notice its beauty and begin to focus on it, on the uniqueness of clouds. And finally, he explained, “we are the sky.”
Like Baime, Weil focused on the importance of mind, body and spirit working in harmony.
Despite the conference theme, though, Weil cautioned the audience that he had no intention of promising anyone that they could be “forever young.”
In fact, he put that idea to rest early in his talk, saying that a better focus is not to deny aging but to embrace it. Citing countries in which the number of centenarians was larger than average, he noted that people didn’t try to erase the appearance of age: Their wrinkles showed; some were bent from age.
Yet, he said, there was “a glow about them” that he didn’t see elsewhere.
He attributed the greater longevity in places like Okinawa and Sardinia to a healthier lifestyle. In Okinawa, for example, he reported, residents’ diets include more tropical fruits and vegetables, fish, and about half the salt that most people in the United States consume.
Okinawans also remain active physically, not by going to the gym or running, but by physical work — walking, gardening, and so on.
He also pointed out that elderly citizens were especially valued. Siblings actually competed for the privilege of caring for elderly parents.
And so elderly people took pride in their age and freely shared how old they were.
Comparing their life to that of people in the West, Weil noted the “toxic cultural message” that the “worth of life diminishes with aging,” an outlook that fuels the anti-aging movement, the need to hide one’s age or signs of age — and that spawns a fear of aging.
Yet often this fear arises from the tendency to develop supposedly aging-related diseases such as heart problems, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Weil, however, stated that the research suggests otherwise, that aging and age-related diseases can be separated. He cited the term “compression of morbidity,” or the idea that a person can live a long, healthy life, and die quickly.
If the feared diseases can be avoided, he posited, there would be less impact on health care costs.
Thus, we should aim to reduce as many health risks as possible.
To do this, Weil explained, requires “physical activity” and “social and intellectual connectiveness.”
Exercise, Weil stressed, should be integrated into daily living, as in the case of the Okinawans he mentioned. People should incorporate physical work into their rhythm, and at the same time, with formal exercise, they should pay attention to the needs of an aging body, yet continue to move in whatever way they can. He cited swimming and walking as examples of low-impact but healthy activities.
He counseled the audience to be attentive to the stories told by elders and what we could learn from them about history. He cited his grandmother’s stories of the Spanish flu epidemic and the toll it took not as much on elderly patients but apparently healthy young adults, who could develop a headache in the morning and die the same day.
Such an occurrence, Weil pointed out, called into question the focus on strengthening the immune system, yet it was information that his grandmother’s stories, more than textbooks, made available to him.
Inflammatory responses may bring about disease, he said, but they can also protect the body and promote healing. Balance is needed, but the American diet is too high in inflammatory agents such as refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, contained in most fruit juices, which has led to an obesity epidemic (a condition he also cited as an inflammatory response).
In rural India, where the rate of Alzheimer’s is low, the residents’ diet is high in turmeric, an anti-inflammatory agent. He also recommended salmon and other fish containing Omega 3 fatty acids. Fish oil also provides Omega 3.
Weil challenged the prevailing fear of skin cancer, saying that the best source of vitamin D was sun exposure, but with so many people using sunscreens, they lose another valuable protection against cancer, since vitamin D is a “major protector of the body’s defenses.” Thus he suggested intake of 2000 I.U. of vitamin D per day.
Other ways to protect health include mental activity. Weil reminded the audience that it was as important to exercise the brain as to exercise the body. Word puzzles, card games, even daily mental challenges can help protect the brain. Learning a new language, Weil mentioned, was especially helpful.
Pointing out the need for adequate sleep and stress reduction, Weil cautioned against sleep medication, which, he said, disrupted normal sleep patterns. Instead, he recommended regular breath work, and like Baime, concluded his talk with an exercise requiring attention to the body, in his case through a simple breathing technique: breathe in through the nose to a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale through the mouth to a count of eight.
And like Baime, he called attention to the spiritual aspect of meditation. Noting that in many languages the word for “breath” and the word for “spirit” were the same, he reminded listeners that “conspiracy” literally meant “breathe together,” and so, in closing, he and his listeners were “co-conspirators” in healing.
And since what we breathe is the air around us, again we are reminded, as in Baime’s lecture, that we are the sky.
Diane McManus is a seasoned writer specializing in health issues. This article originally appeared in the "Perfect Fit" special supplement.